It was perhaps the most surreal Hajj in Islam’s 1,400 year-history.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Muslims would travel to the holy city of Makkah in a spiritually and physically demanding tribute that each believer is expected to carry out at least once in their life.
But this year, just a fraction of that number gathered at the Kaaba, wearing face masks and respecting social distancing rules in a muted version of Hajj that was designed to prevent the mass spread of the virus.
Instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder, Muslim pilgrims stayed two metres apart and were restricted to groups of around 20, identifiable by the colour of their umbrellas, which also warded off the baking Saudi Arabian heat.
Usually, pilgrims pick up pebbles along the Hajj route that would then be used for the ritual of stoning the devil. Instead, pebbles were collected in bags and sterilised in advance. Hand sanitiser and soap were also in ample supply.
All expenses were covered by the Saudi government, including healthcare for anyone who falls ill during the pilgrimage.
“Words aren’t enough to explain how blessed I feel and how amazing the arrangements have been,” Ammar Khaled, a 29-year-old Saudi resident from India, told the Associated Press.
“They have taken every possible precaution,” he added.
With people based overseas forbidden from joining Hajj, the 1,000 places for Saudi residents were hotly contested. Residents were required to fill out an application form, with around a third of the places reserved for Saudi security and medical staff.
Applicants had to be between 20 and 50 years old with no terminal illnesses, and all were tested for coronavirus before they were allowed to take part.
As many applications were rejected, there was some grumbling on Saudi social media once the results were announced, and some pilgrims said they had resisted the urge to announce their success on social media for fear of making their friends jealous.